Ryerson Rams look to complete perfect season at U Sports women's basketball championship

The Toronto school has never won a national women's basketball title, while the defending champion Saskatchewan Huskies are seeking another under coach Lisa Thomaidis.

Rams are top seed as Canada's best university basketball teams aim for national glory

The Ryerson Rams women's basketball team won the Critelli Cup in dramatic fashion and are favourites to win their first U Sports title. (Josh Kim/Ryerson Athletics)

While March Madness reaches its crescendo in the U.S., Canada's version, the U Sports Final 8, tips off on Thursday with the best university women's basketball teams making their way to Kingston, Ont. 

The Queen's Gaels enter the tournament as host and the seventh seed,and will play No. 2 Saskatchewan Huskies in their quarter-final. Meanwhile, No. 1 Ryerson Rams face No. 8 UPEI Panthers, No. 3 Winnipeg Wesmen take on No. 6 Laval Rouge et Or, and the No. 4 Brock Badgers tip off against No. 5 Acadia Axewomen.

The 11-game tournament begins at 12 p.m. ET with the Rams and Panthers opening the day featuring all four quarter-finals. 

Defending champions look to run it back

The Saskatchewan Huskies are a living dynasty. The defending U Sports champions enter this year's tournament coming off their fifth Canada West championship in the last six seasons, and a year that saw them compile a 14-2 record against difficult competition. 

Led by former women's national team head coach Lisa Thomaidis, the Huskies turn to fifth-year forward Summer Masikewich, who averaged 17.7 points per game, third best in Canada West.

"It's going to be a challenge, going to nationals, playing teams that we haven't seen before, and being prepared for that," Thomaidis told CBC Sports. "Our team does a great job of understanding other teams and putting together a game plan and then being able to execute it."

With a mix of veterans and first years, the Huskies demonstrated strong play on both sides of the ball, allowing the fewest points per game in Canada West at 54.3 while scoring the second most at 77.9.

Saskatchewan take on the host Queen's Gaels in the quarter-final, a program that fell in the Critelli Cup quarter-final to Ryerson. 

Ryerson hope their OUA final comeback pushes them to a title

With six minutes left, Ryerson trailed Brock by 22 points in the OUA final but the Rams, led by Team Canada assistant coach Carly Clarke, regrouped, forced overtime and won their second-ever Critelli Cup, 72-70, in front of a raucous crowd in St. Catharines, Ont. 

Fourth-year forward Jama Bin-Edward played an exceptional game, picking up a double-double with 23 points and 10 rebounds. Alongside her contributions, the Rams have turned to their depth with veterans Rachel Farwell, Mikaela Dodig, Marin Scotten and second-year NCAA transfer Kaillie Hall. 

"We're confident in our preparation, and we're going to go out and play the way we can," Hall said. "We want to ... enjoy the process of playing for a national championship."

The Rams enter the tournament boasting a perfect 14-0 record through the regular season and playoffs and are looking to become the first U Sports team to win the Bronze Baby — the trophy awarded to the tournament winner — with a perfect season since the Carleton Ravens in 2018.

Entering the tournament as the top seed, the Rams are favourites to win the title and take on the AUS runner-up UPEI Panthers in their opening quarter-final game. 

Acadia turns U Sports hopes to Jayda Veinot 

The Acadia Axewomen enter nationals trying to finally win on the biggest stage. Jayda Veinot, a fourth-year wing, has led the program for the last four seasons, three of which they've won the AUS championship. However, the U Sports banner eludes them.

The Axewomen are again AUS champions, coming back from a 14-point deficit at halftime to take down the Cape Breton Capers, 71-65, and book their spot at nationals. 

"Just going to half time; it was all about composure," Veinot said following the game. "We were trying hard, but we weren't playing composed, and you can't win games that way, so we snapped out of it and made sure we were playing for each other."

The sister of Dalhousie men's basketball's Keevan Veinot, Jayda has been exceptional all season, averaging 23.6 points per game in the AUS regular season, and playing a conference-high 36.7 minutes per game. 

The Axewomen enter the tournament's tightest matchup in the quarter-final, taking on the OUA runner-up Brock Badgers. 

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